Armed with heavy weapons, Islamic radicals may be doing battle in North Africa, but their roots reach much further, according to Professor Nivien Saleh at Thunderbird School of Global Management.
“So you have main Al-Qaida in Afghanistan/Pakistan then you have off-shoots in Yemen, in Iraq, and in the northern Maghreb,” Saleh said.
And the franchise known as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb controls a huge swath of Northern Mali.
Saleh said although it is a poor, mostly barren area, the instability makes this an area rich for terrorism to set seed.
“It creates a ground where Al-Qaida, the real main Al-Qaida, can come in and establish itself just like it did in Afghanistan and then from there it might be able to launch real attacks on Western interests,” Saleh said.
Islamist groups and ethnic Tuaregs, many armed with weapons from Libya, quickly took the area after a military coup in Mali last year, but the Tuaregs soon found themselves odd man out when the Islamists co-opted their revolt.
“Because they were better organized and they were tougher and they had no qualms attacking Tuaregs, as well,” Saleh said.
Before long the Islamists had established sharia law and began destroying religious and culturally important sites.
With thousands of refugees fleeing, the U.N. backed the idea of an African force moving in, but as the Islamists gained more ground, Saleh said the generals in Mali’s capitol could not wait.
“The Mali government got antsy and said, ‘Hey, France, please help us,’ so the French sent troops," Saleh said.
Saleh said while that has driven Islamists back, it could ultimately help their cause.
“Because when you have an outsider intervene like that you might actually rally the population around the Islamists," she said.
And if this turns into a long-running conflict it puts a strain on neighboring countries, like Algeria.
“What is happing in Mali right now, a vacuum of power, concerns the Algerians because it gives them less control in their fight against islamist groups,“ Saleh said.
We just saw Islamists seize a natural gas facility and kill foreigners.
And while Al-Qaida is a common threat, Saleh said Algeria is taking a different tack than Mali, negotiating with more moderate Islamists to neutralize radicals, rather than calling in more troops.
President Bouteflika of Algeria is concerned if you start a war, you don't know where it is heading or what is coming out of it.
The United States and Great Britain have not committed ground troops as the French have, but they have provided logistical support. French troops have taken back several key cities, including Timbuktu.
However, many fear the radicals are still capable of launching geurilla-type attacks.